Behind the Image: Fran Halsall on shooting in extreme conditions

Behind the Image: Fran Halsall on shooting in extreme conditions

To celebrate the lead up to PhotoLive 2014, we’ll be featuring a different image from each photographer speaking at the event.

Sometimes a spectacular image happens when you least expect it. Fran Halsall explains how a long walk, a steep scramble and triumphing in the face of adversity has lead to the creation of one of her favourite images.

Behind the Image: Fran Halsall on shooting in extreme conditions

High Cup Nick, near Dufton in Cumbria. Image copyright Fran Halsall

This is one of my favourite pieces of work because the amount of effort was totally justified by the results.  Some locations are just plain awkward and High Cup Gill is certainly one of these.

Firstly it is a long walk followed by a steep scramble, and secondly the combination of the valley’s southwest to northeast orientation and its height means that throughout most of the year substantial shadows are cast across it at sunrise and sunset.

The only way to get around this is to wait until the light floods up the valley at sunset in midwinter and accept that this will mean walking back in the dark.

While this sounds like a reasonable strategy what it actually meant was that from the intended viewpoint, looking southwest, it would mean shooting directly into the sun’s path.

Under normal conditions the backlit landscape would be silhouetted, however by waiting until there was a covering of snow the foreground is distinguishable from the background.

SEE MORE: The best camera settings for sunsets (free photography cheat sheet)

Snow has wonderfully reflective properties and is the ideal medium to work with in such circumstances. Put simply no snow, no photograph.

To make this possible I had to travel to Cumbria before the weather deteriorated and then wait 4 or 5 days at minus temperatures for the sun to reappear.

Despite the favourable (if chilly) conditions there were still technical hurdles to overcome as pointing the camera right at the sun not only creates exposure difficulties, with misleading meter readings and lens flare, but it is also potentially damaging for both eyes and camera sensor.

Fortunately linear rolls of cloud between my viewing position and the sun provided the solution.

As the sun sank below them the light slowly reached up the valley, taking many minutes to reach me, and this image was shot before the sun appeared directly in the frame.

This has created the best possible combination of warm-coloured sunlit snow contrasting with areas softly illuminated by scattered blue skylight.

Importantly this kept the contrast within a much more manageable range, although it still required the combination of two exposures during post-processing: the first at a plus one compensation for the snow and the other set at a stop under to retain detail around the sun.

These were better conditions that could have been hoped for and the balance between areas of directly illuminated snow, those lit only with reflected skylight and the dark rocks make a graphically strong and exciting image.

Fran shot this image at 21mm using a Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II at  ISO 100, 1/15sec & 1/30sec at f/16.

Fran is running two sessions at PhotoLive 2014.

  • Weather Watching
    Intimate Landscapes

You can find Fran on Facebook and check out her website to see more of her amazing pictures.

PhotoLive takes place in Leeds (23 Aug), Edinburgh (30 Aug) and London (06 Sep). You can view the full schedule and book tickets at Use code DCAM20 and get 20% off your ticket.


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